Welcome to Group A! Each month, stories will be scored on a 5-Point System. Points will be accumulated over the period of 6 months. The 5-Point System takes into account the following criteria:
Each of the 4 criteria are judged on the 5-Point System. A score of 20 would be considered a perfect story by the judges’ standards.
1: Hated it, confusing, illogical, or has mostly negative aspects
2: Didn’t like it, had a lot of negative elements
3: Middle of the road, nothing good or bad particularly stood out
4: Very good, shows a lot of positive elements
5: Great, on par with some professional stories you’ve read, mostly positive aspects
Prompts for May 2022
1. A Night of Flowers
2. A Mother’s Flesh
3. A Burnt Gift
Petitioner’s Gate by Sharon Rivest
Sisters of Night they were. Midnight and Moon. The dark of the heavens. The light of the stars. Living in a garden of eternal beauty. Prophets. Oracles. Murderers. Fiends. Like spiders, they sat in their web of flowers. Using hope of the knowledge of truth and the future to lure prey into their trap.
Bayron paced outside the tall stonewalls of Morrow’s Reach, watching the sun slowly set below the trees. As required, his armor lay in a pile beside the lone bench before the Petitioner’s Gate. Without his sword, he felt naked. Fear crept up his back on icy fingers, making him question his decision to come here.
Too late for that.
Past the gate was the chance to find the answers to his question. Or death. He couldn’t be certain which. He couldn’t know the sisters’ mood beforehand. Rumor said their natures were capricious. Many petitioners never returned.
The high cost of answers kept away frivolous patrons. Dead men had no future days, nor unrealized accomplishments. Each answer required two visits. Those who received answers cautioned choosing questions wisely.
He had to discover the location of the rumored secret entrance to the king’s bedchamber. One man could kill the tyrant. Revenge his murdered father. End the suffering of the people. No matter the cost, he had to be that man.
When the last bit of gray left the sky, the gate creaked open and a gnarled, humpbacked old woman stepped out, a torch in her hand. “Come,” she said, her voice rustier than the gate hinges.
Bayron eased past her, shuddering when he heard the gate close. She stumped ahead of him into the garden, dragging one foot as she led the way. The smell of dung and sweat trailed behind her. In the torchlight, her hair moved as if a horde of vermin were warring across her scalp. He dropped further back. His skin crawled and his hand involuntarily stole up to scratch his head, searching for any creature that might have leapt on him as he passed her.
The fabled garden surrounded him, but he could only see as far as the torch allowed. Towering trees thick with foliage blocked out most of the star-filled sky. Though it was night, many of the plants were blooming, the scent of their flowers almost strong enough to cover the stench of his guide. Some smells he knew. Jasmine. Gardenia. There was even a hint of that strange yellow fruit from the south he’d once ate, tart and unique in his nostrils.
They came at last to a circular opening, a luminous pool in its center. The water shone with an eerie greenish light. On the near side of the pool was a low bench. On the far side were two chairs occupied by the sisters. Midnight with skin as dark as her name sat dressed in tiers of pristine white silk. Pearls were scattered in the thick braids of black hair piled high on her head. Moon sat beside her, dressed in dark velvet that drank up the light. Her pale hair hung almost to the ground beside her chair. A crown of dark leaves adorned her head.
“So, pretty one, you have a question?” said Midnight in her rich voice.
Was it that simple?
He took a deep breath. “I have. Where is the secret entrance to the King Arnod’s bedchamber?”
“No answers till you’ve paid the price,” said Moon in a voice tenuous as a baby bird.
Not so simple then.
“Name your price.”
The sisters leaned toward each other, consulting in low voices. Huge frogs with eyes large as a man’s emerged from the depths of the pool to float on its surface and stare at Bayron. Their rapt attention was disconcerting. They began a chorus of strange croaks.
Help. Flee. Help. Run. Help. Me.
Words? Bayron shook his head. This eerie place was playing tricks on his mind. The croaks sounded almost like the creatures were speaking.
An owl swooped down on silent wings and plucked a frog out of the water, flying off into the garden as noiselessly as it had come. The other frogs sank below the luminous water.
Sitting back in her chair, Moon said, “We’ve decided. Bring us something that represents your past and your future.”
“Anything I choose?”
A rumbling noise started in Midnight’s chest. A kind of muffled laugh belonging more to a demon than a woman. “Hardly. To represent your past, make us a pouch of your mother’s skin.”
Moon’s lips spread wide in a toothless grin. “Excellent idea, sister. My choice seems so ordinary by comparison.” She turned to Bayron. “Fill the pouch with your son’s hand. Bring us these and we will answer your question.”
Shocked, it took a moment for Bayron to find his voice. “The price is too high.”
“Then you shouldn’t have asked,” the sisters said in unison.
Something shining fell past his face. It tightened around his neck. He spun about to find the hag holding the end of a wet rope, which glowed like the water in the pool. Clawing at his neck, he discovered the other end encircled his throat. He couldn’t loosen it.
He shouted at the sisters, “What is this?”
“A guarantee you will return for your answer,” Midnight said.
Moon snickered. “Every day you’re away, the rope dries a bit more. Stay away too long and you choke. Only we can remove it.”
How he missed his sword. He never should have come unarmed. His hands balled into fists and he took a step toward them. Hag grunted behind him. The noose tightened by the barest of margins, but enough to halt his progress.
Midnight wagged a finger at him. “That cost you a day. Now leave before this day is your last.”
Hag handed him the rope, took up her torch, and led him back to the gate.
“How can you ask this of me?” Amana said.
Bayron avoided his mother’s eyes. His request was so repugnant she’d never agree. “It’s a chance to avenge father. A way to end Arnod’s unjust reign.”
Amana moved to the window and looked out on the keep’s sorry excuse of a garden. It was winter here, unlike the eternal summer Morrow’s Reach enjoyed.
“And if I say no?”
“I’ll die,” Bayron rasped, as he uncoiled the end of the glowing rope from around his waist and walked toward her.
“You must have misunderstood. It’s too much. I cannot agree.”
“As I knew you would choose.”
It had to be quick, or his resolve would fail. Before she turned back, he wrapped the rope around her neck and pulled it tight. Holding her up off the floor, he waited for her heels to stop banging his shins. He stared past her at the withered garden, until her fingers stopped clawing his hands.
When she was dead, he flayed her back from shoulders to waist, then scraped the hide as thin as possible before stuffing it into a bag. He stomped down the dim, cold halls of his keep, headed for the nursery, hoping his wife wouldn’t be there.
He drew his sword as he entered. Surprised and terrified, the boy’s wet nurse bravely threw herself between him and the cradle. He cut her down without hesitation. Retrieving a half-burned log from the fireplace, he went to the child. It seemed to take forever to find his son’s arm in the swaddling cloth. When at last he’d freed it, he placed it on the edge of the cradle and brought down his sword, slicing off the boy’s hand. The child began to scream. His screams turned to shrieks as the smoldering wood cauterized his wound. Bayron burnt the end of the hand as well to keep it from bleeding.
A wail sounded behind him. He turned to see the color drain from his young wife’s face. Her eyes rolled back, and she collapsed by the door. How could he console her, let alone explain? He stuffed the tiny hand into his bag, stepped over his wife, and left the keep. There wasn’t much time left for the tanner to make the skin into a pouch.
Bayron sat on the bench, staring at the Petitioner’s Gate, waiting for the last hint of day to leave the sky. The hinges groaned and the old woman peeked out.
“Back are you?” The hag eyed the rope. “None too soon, by the look of it.”
Another noisy breath wheezed down Bayron’s throat. Each one was a struggle. He nodded and was waved inside, where he followed the hag to the pool. Midnight sat in her chair, covered from neck to toe with delicate lace. A glass crown rested on her head, reflecting the green light of the pool. Moon wore a robe of raven feathers. Dozens more were stuck haphazardly in her hair. The heads of the frogs slowly broke the surface of the pool, eyes fixed on Bayron.
“Have you brought them?” Midnight said.
When Bayron extended the pouch, Moon squealed with delight. “Throw it to me,” she said, her pale eyes alight.
Bayron walked to the edge of the pool and did as he was told. Moon plucked it out of the air when it reached her. She drew out the tiny hand and gave the pouch over to Midnight. Both of them sniffed his payments. Moon put the hand to her mouth and sucked the tiny thumb.
“You have honored your end of the bargain,” Midnight said. “We will honor ours.”
Moon pulled the thumb from her mouth reluctantly. “Yes. Yes. Ask again.”
“Where is the secret entrance to the Arnod’s bedchamber?” Bayron croaked. He felt as if his eyes were bulging out of his head as the rope continued to tighten.
“Shall I?” Moon said to her sister.
“I’ll do it.” Midnight turned to Bayron and smiled serenely. “There isn’t one.”
Sucking in as much breath as he could, he shouted, “None? You knew all along. You made me do it for nothing!”
Bayron reached into his boot and pulled out a dagger. The hag threw her shoulder into him, sending him tumbling into the pool. Dozens of large frogs surrounded him, their hands grabbing him, pulling him downward. He dropped the dagger as he fought them. It fell to the bottom of the pool where it joined a thousand others. The last of his breath gurgled past his lips. The rope loosen and he slipped out of it. He broke free of the frogs. Kicking hard, he clawed his way upward to the air he so desperately needed.
His head broke the surface. All around him, frog heads came out of the water, their distended eyes staring at him. So close. He tried to push them away, but couldn’t reach them. The sisters gazed down at him, those serene smiles still on their faces.
“How rarely they’re satisfied with their answers. And how often they bring weapons,” Moon said. She popped his son’s thumb in her mouth again and chewed.
Midnight shook her head. “Their problem is they rarely ask the right questions.”
“Too true,” Moon said before taking another bite.
The frogs began their chorus, voices rising, surrounding Bayron. Filling the garden with their twisted, almost human words. They had warned him, but he ignored them. Again, they spoke the truth.
Snare. Them. Trick. Me. All. Lost.
Bayron looked down at the slick green skin of his stubby arms and splayed fingers. He joined his voice with the other doomed petitioners.
False. Hope. Vain. Pride. Sins. Fool.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
The Bloom of Youth by K.L. Schwengel
Galinna picked her way through the ruined city, guiding Mahgydd with a hand beneath her elbow. “Come now, Mother, it’s not so far yet.” And yet too far if we don’t pick up the pace, you old crone.
The last rays of a haze-smeared sun were kissing what remained of the bell tower in the center of the city, the only thing taller than a sapling left standing after the plague wars. If the old woman moved any slower they would never make the temple at its base by nightfall and Galinna had no desire to be caught in the open after dark.
“Not so far.” The old woman chuckled as she repeated Galinna’s words in a deep, raspy voice.
Galinna glanced sidelong at her, frown deepening. Crazy as Beskin’s toothless beggar. Goddess be damned. Lisha will pay for assigning me this task.
“It falls to the youngest to see the eldest to their final rest,” Lisha had told her. “Consider it the last leg of your initiation and rejoice as you take your place in our order.”
Galinna shook her head. It would be simpler to just leave Mahgydd and go. The end result would be the same. The old woman would see the end of her days and Galinna would return to Beskin with no one the wiser.
Mahgydd lurched suddenly forward and Galinna snatched her back before she fell.
“Need to sit a spell, child.”
Galinna clenched her jaw. “Not here, Mother. You know it’s not safe to be in the open after dark.”
The old woman ignored her and pried her arm from Galinna’s grasp. She lowered her bony, wrinkled frame to perch on a fallen timber, inhaling deeply. “Fresh blossoms. Do you smell them, child? Demon’s helm, I believe.”
“I smell rot and decay,” Galinna said under her breath. “And we’ll be smelling our own blood if we don’t keep moving.”
Mahgydd chuckled and patted the timber beside her. “You worry overmuch, sweet one. Come. Sit.”
“Mother, please —”
A sudden gust of wind brought with it the sharp scent of something akin to wet hound and a chill ran down Galinna’s spine. The clatter of falling rock brought her head around and she peered back the way they had come. The shadows claimed the ruins and within them Galinna swore she saw something move. Something about the size of a pony but with long stringy hair and the face of a wolf. Her hand went to the slim dagger at her waist. Like that would do any good against the kind of beasts that lurked here. And who was Galinna kidding? She’d never done more with a knife than slice tubers for dinner.
She reached for Mahgydd and pulled the old woman to her feet. “Come, Mother, we need to go. Now.”
Another sound from deeper within the city in the direction of the bell tower caught Galinna’s attention and she cocked her head to better hear. Voices? Thank the holies. Galinna didn’t care if they were rouges or demons, so long as they were armed and capable of fending off the beasts stalking them.
When she tugged at Mahgydd to move her forward, however, the old woman resisted with more strength than Galinna would have thought possible.
“Mother, please.” Galinna’s voice broke, fear sending a tremor through her. “There are fendogs following us, I am certain of it. If they catch us we are both dead.”
The old woman lifted her head and took another deep breath, eyes closed. “Yes, definitely demon’s helm I smell.”
Galinna smelled only the fetid odor of the fendogs, stronger than before. She tugged once more at the old woman’s arm then, realizing it was futile, bolted toward the voices. The old woman had come here to die, then die she would, that didn’t mean Galinna needed to join her.
The orange glow of fire drew Galinna through a tangle of fallen houses and overgrown vegetation. She burst into a clearing, heaving after a breath, caught her toe on a rock and landed face down in the dirt. Whatever air she had left burst from her lungs and she lay for a moment trying to snatch it back. A rustle of movement forced her to look up and Galinna blinked against the glare of a low fire. She must have hit her head when she landed because the figures tending the flames bore a striking resemblance to fendogs standing upright and wearing hooded robes.
Galinna eased onto her knees, sitting back on her heels. The stone that had felled her was one of many making up a large ring, at the center of which stood a stone slab. The fire crackled joyfully beneath it, and all around, where nothing else grew, were tall clusters of deep, purple flowers.
“They only bloom one night a year.” Mahgydd appeared at the edge of the ring. She stepped easily over the stones, trailing a hand through the blossoms. The old woman snapped off a sprig of the purple flowers and brought it with her as she came to stand in front of Galinna. “One very special night. Do you know why it is such?”
“Mother, thank the goddess you’re alright. I ran for help when I heard the voices.”
“Their voices?” Mahgydd gestured with the flower toward the figures within the ring, as they added more wood to the fire beneath the slab. “They are not here to help you, child, but me. Do you know what this night is?”
Galinna worked at forming enough spit to swallow against the unexplainable, cold terror suddenly gripping her and shook her head.
“Of course you don’t.” The old woman brushed the back of her hand across Galinna’s cheek. “No one has told you, for if they had—” She put her lips against Galinna’s ear. “— you would have run.”
“Shh, child.” Mahgydd held the dark flowers against Galinna’s lips to silence her. “It is time for you to complete your initiation.”
Mahgydd snapped a bloom off the stalk and pressed it between Galinna’s lips, forcing it past her teeth. Galinna would have spit it out if not for the iron-like grip of the old woman’s hand across her mouth. The flower tasted first of honey, but as it dissolved on her tongue it became cloying sweet. Galinna gagged. Bile rose in her throat but made it no further. In fact her body had ceased to obey even the simplest of commands. Galinna could do nothing other than sit and stare in horror.
“Prepare her,” Mahgydd said and walked toward the stone slab, peeling her clothing off as she went.
Short clawed hands reached for Galinna, jerked her to her feet. She walked woodenly between the robed fendgos, unable to resist. Her mouth tingled and her head swam. Cool air washed over her skin and Galinna looked down to discover herself as naked as the old woman who now stood before the slab. She wanted to cover herself but her arms refused to move and when she opened her mouth to ask what was happening or perhaps beg for her life, her tongue moved thick and sluggish, unable to form the words.
“Tonight is my night.”
Mahgydd’s words reached Galinna as though from far away, even with only an arm’s reach between them.
“This night I trade this wrinkled, fading suit of flesh for the bloom of youth, unravaged by time. Just as the demon’s helm blossoms this night, so shall I be renewed. Your gift, child, to the mother of all.”
Two robed figures moved to either side of the old woman. She locked eyes with Galinna and began to speak, words tumbled about Galinna in a language she didn’t understand. They swam in her vision like lightning bugs. Through them she watched as Mahgydd ate a flower; her gaze remaining on Galinna as the fendogs lifted her and placed her on the stone above the flames.
The smell of burning skin and hair seared Galinna’s nostrils. The old woman lay motionless on the slab, eyes wide, mouth agape as her flesh sizzled and hissed, the steam rising into the night.
Mahgydd shivered. The pre-dawn air held a decided chill now that the fire had died. A delicious shiver chased across her naked flesh and she rubbed a hand across her arm, the skin smooth and creamy, devoid of even the hint of a wrinkle.
The demon’s helm were closing their buds. By morning’s first light they would be as dead as the charred corpse on the altar.
Mahgydd smiled and brushed her fingers across her face. “Thank you, child. Go, knowing your gift is much appreciated.”
She turned her back to the ring of stone, drawing the shadows around her in a cloak of deep purple.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
Hunter Most Hunted by Joe Coates
“Are you hurt?”
Ylva’s voice sounded like it was coming from far away. Livingston’s one eye fluttered open. He was lying in the shallows at the edge of the river.
The river bank.
River banks were not good places to lie around. Not on this world.
Carth-36 was a relatively innocuous-looking planet when viewed from orbit, but was endowed with a truly breathtaking collection of ravenous wildlife. Wildlife, it turned out that, didn’t like to be disturbed by such noisy things as space-cruisers breaking through the upper atmosphere.
Things lived on river banks. Basked on them.
He knew he should move.
“Livingston, are you hurt?” the medical officer repeated.
Livingston hauled himself into a sitting position. He winced as his bionically-enhanced muscles protested. He picked up his coilgun. Water ran out of the barrel.
“I mean, my pride’s a little bruised,” he said.
Ylva Hawkes let out a little disbelieving laugh.
“Oh, thank fuck,” she said. “For a second there, I thought I was on my own.”
“No sweet solitude for you just yet, I fear,” Livingston said. “Jolly lucky there was this river here, really.”
“You didn’t know the river was here when you dragged me off the fucking cliff?” Ylva asked.
Livingston got to his feet. His cybernetic leg gave a twinge. He hoped it wouldn’t seize. “Not as such,” he replied. “I had an inkling, but I thought potential death by massive trauma trumped definite death by evisceration.”
“I aim to please.”
“Wasn’t a compliment,” Hawkes said.
She went to give him a familiar friendly punch to the arm, but the motion was arrested by a clamour of marrow-chilling roars. The medic’s elfin face, which was hardly flushed with bonhomie after being chased through a rainforest by a pack of ravening hunting-cats before jumping off a precipice into a river, went even paler. Her intricate tribal scarring stood out livid red against the milk-white skin.
Livingston looked up.
About three hundred meters upriver, the pride of sable and green predators stood on the edge of the fifty meter cliff he and Ylva had recently hurled themselves off. It was tricky to tell with cats, even cats the size of those monsters, but Livingston thought that they sounded really pissed.
“Well, the seals that connect our helmets to our bio-suits held,” he said. “That’s something. Nothing like having your bronchial tree dissolved to ruin a hunt.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ylva said, dragging her eyes away from the cats that were standing on the edge of the crag and watching them, their tails swishing backwards and forwards. “Aren’t we lucky.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, Hawkes—” he replied.
“I bet you bloody have,” muttered the medical officer.
“—but lucky isn’t one of them.”
The familiar slick clack of metal sliding into metal recalled Livingston’s attention to Ylva. The woman had ejected the mag from her coilgun and was slotting a fresh one into the side of the weapon.
“There’s really not any point in you doing that,” Livingston said.
“It’ll make me feel better,” Ylva said.
“No doubt, but our coilguns are buggered.”
Seemingly unwilling to take his word for it, Ylva sighted up at the pack of hunting cats standing on the cliff edge and pulled the trigger.
“The energy cells,” Livingston explained. “They don’t like water much.”
“Why would a Venator, someone who hunts for a living, not pack water-resistant gear?” Ylva snarled.
“Easy enough to fix when we get back on the Farrago, but for now we should hope that the cells dry quickly,” Livingston said, ignoring the question.
“Hope? That’s a good one.”
Ylva sighed. “Let’s just get the matriarch’s hide back to the Farrago, then get our asses back into orbit,” she said.
Livingston looked up into the fading sky. On his faceplate’s HUD he saw that the distant sun would sink in less than two hours.
“We’re not going to make the ship come sundown,” he said.
“At least the forest is pretty at night,” Ylva said, trying and failing to keep her tone light.
“Being eaten alive won’t be as bad being surrounded by bioluminescent flowers, you mean?” Livingston said, hefting the heavy rolled hide of the matriarch onto his brawny shoulder. “Or do you think those hunting-cats will mellow with the coming dark and let us be?
“Hey,” Ylva said, “you’re the one that skinned their mother. Their beef’s with you.”
Potentially useless coilguns in hand, Livingston and Ylva made their way through one of the strange waist-high thickets of glowing flowering fungi, which grew in clusters through the more open areas of the rainforest. Night had fallen, and the was air filled with glimmering cerulean spores that floated from the fungi like wishes.
There was an almost dreamy stillness in the air.
“Incoming!” Livingston yelled.
A warning had just flashed across the HUD projected on the faceplate of his helmet, warning of a fast-moving inbound organism.
Ylva, who was a little distance away from him, jerked her coilgun up and spun around.
Whatever the thing was, it was coming in hot. Livingston wasn’t surprised at that. The residents of Carth-36 had learned long ago to move with speed, precision, and zero hesitation; keys to survival in such a rich and contended hunting ground. The heat signature he was picking up on his omni-com was moving so quickly it was practically one long streak of amber set against the blue.
And it was heading for Ylva.
The coilgun was, in the age of interstellar travel, a relatively simplistic tool. It was a compact assault weapon that used an energy cell, rather than gunpowder, to propel solid steel slugs contained in a box magazine down a smoothbore barrel. The killing velocity of the slug was achieved by the coils that were switched on and off in a precisely timed sequence, with every pull of the trigger causing the projectile to be accelerated quickly along the barrel via magnetic forces.
Using his omni-com to make a rough estimate as to where the incoming hostile might be, Livingston sent up a prayer that whatever technological and scientific wizardry powering the coilgun might still work and unloaded a magazine’s worth of slugs into the treeline. The solid steel rounds punched through the delicate fungi growths like they weren’t even there, sending phosphorescent flowers star-bursting in all directions.
Large winged animals, which looked like a cross between slugs and bats, took flight from the canopy around Livingston and Ylva as the coilgun rounds smashed the trees in front of Livingston to splinters.
The heat signature swerved away from Ylva and circled the glade that the pair of them were standing in.
“Any idea what the hell that is?” Livingston asked.
“Negative,” Ylva replied. “The biodiversity on this planet is too vast for the Farrago’s database to make an accurate prediction based solely on a heat signature.”
“I’m really starting to dislike this place,” Livingston growled.
The blob of heat had circled the glade they were in, but was being careful to stay out of sight. Regrettably, it did not appear to be a stupid animal. It looked to have taken note of where the slugs that had assailed it had come from and had moved around towards Livingston.
With a fluidity born of much practice, Livingston ejected the mag of his coilgun and reached for another.
Six meters long, five feet tall at the shoulders, and weighing all of fifteen-hundred pounds, the hunting-cat erupted from the treeline. The creature’s canines protruded from its jaws like a quartet of scimitars.
In the space of a splintered second, Livingston’s brain told him that there was no way he was going to have time to get his hand to the pouch on his webbing where his spare magazines were kept, open it, retrieve the mag, and slot it into his gun.
The charging cat let rip a snarling roar. It was a sound that took the reptilian, primordial part of Livingston’s psyche by the throat and squeezed. It pushed all those subconscious buttons that reminded him that he was, when you stripped away all the window-dressing, an animal, and an edible one at that.
Livingston dropped his coilgun. His right hand moved unthinkingly to the thigh holster on his right leg. Distantly, as if a select few neurons were making note of such trivial things, he heard the dull fwizz, fwizz, fwizz, fwizz of Ylva loosing off rounds from her own coilgun.
The fungi around the charging ball of black and green fur-covered death exploded into a million celestial puffs of brightly coloured bioluminescence. One of the solid metal slugs zipped across the back of the cat-like creature’s muscular shoulders, spraying a stream of black droplets into the moonlit air as it hissed through skin and muscle.
The huge black cat did not even slow. Didn’t even flinch.
Livingston managed to draw just as the hunting-cat reached him. He effected four pulls of the trigger of his slug-thrower before a paw the size of a trash can lid swept sideways and batted him effortlessly away. Claws shrieked across metal, sending sparks flying, as his shock-suit took the brunt of the blow.
Livingston was punted ten yards through the air, smashed through a few fungi towers, hit the leaf mould, and rolled half a dozen times. He came to rest on his back, the tightly furled hide they had come all that way for still strapped to his back. By some miracle he was still clutching his slug-thrower.
The huge cat thrust its head out towards him. It was a beautiful animal; the epitome of the perfect killing machine. Its bright emerald eyes, bisected by a slit of horizontal pupil, showed a single-minded dedication to death. They glowed with an unapologetic, unquenchable, lust for blood.
Livingston unloaded his slug-thrower into the savage face. Fired until the great cat retreated with a snarl of rage.
He got to his feet. Red lights flickered in the corners of his HUD. He didn’t know what they meant. Didn’t have time to check.
“Ylva?” he said into his comms.
Ylva emerged from the darkness, only about twenty yards from him.
“Livingston, are you okay?”
Livingston didn’t answer. He didn’t know where the fuck something the size of that beast could get to, not in the time it had taken for him to get to his—
The hunting-cat pounced from between the glittering flowering fungi towers to his left and bowled Livingston clean off his feet. Hot breath washed over him; the stink of rotten meat, old blood, and feral piss managing to get through his filtered air supply.
He still had his slug-thrower, but he didn’t know which way was up let alone where the cat was. Turf smacked him in the face, driving the wind from him. Livingston rolled to his knees.
And looked into death’s green eyes.
A billowing tongue of fire turned the night momentarily to day, erupting from the bionic implant that had been concealed in Ylva’s forearm. Livingston’s faceplate darkened automatically, but he was still half-blinded as the jet of lethal fire engulfed the hunting-cat in a roar of crackling fur and sizzling fat.
“Where the hell did that come from?” he gasped, as the body of the roasted monster thudded to the earth, smoking.
“Can’t a girl have her secrets?” Ylva said.
Angry snarling roars rose in the distance.
“Think they’ll let us be?” Ylva asked, helping Livingston to his feet.
“Oh, sure,” Livingston replied drily. “We skinned their matriarch and are leaving them the burnt body of one of their pride, done extra-crispy, as a gift. I can’t see why they’d pursue us all the way back to the ship…”
The predatory bellows were growing nearer.
“Nothing like being flavour of the month,” Ylva sighed. “Got any advice?”
“Yeah,” Livingston said. “Run like hell.”
“The same as usual, then,” Ylva said, and took off into the trees.
Judge #1’s Scores
Judge #2’s Scores
The Pits by Tim Clark
He was dead. There was no other word for it. Dead. In a world of blackness. Bitter blackness in his face. And the stench of death. Corpses all around. His face was pressed into some dead person’s arse. Or armpit. Or crotch. He couldn’t tell. It could be any body part. It all smelled like arse.
Funny that he could smell in Hell. If that was where he was. He realised he was breathing. Sucking in bitter fumes. There was air here. Air and corpses and some foul tasting chemical.
That morning had started off like any other morning. Turfed out of the wherever he had ended up in the small hours by an angry someone. Threatened with a beating but not sticking around to allow that someone to make good on that threat.
‘Fuck off and don’t come back!’ growled the aggrieved party, whoever it was that morning. He didn’t care. It was nearly always someone. It was a rare day when Rawk managed to find a place to crash that didn’t piss someone off.
What the hell had happened last night? He could vaguely remember it having something to do with flowers. Stems, blooms, petals, nectar. A night of flowers. Really? Why was he remembering that? He looked down. Someone had pinned a large purple flower on his chest. She gave me that. He struggled to dredge out a fuller memory, but no, it wasn’t going to come back. It rarely did.
He had been drinking noisily from a horse trough when the mage found him.
‘Drinking and bathing in the same horse trough?’ laughed the stuck-up magic pedlar. ‘Not very smart that, eh?’
Rawk belched, sniffed and shook the water off his head. The morning was hot and he had sweated something terrible in the night. ‘Not trying to be smart, master,’ he intoned.
‘Lucky that,’ laughed the arrogant prick.
‘Got a job for me?’ snarled Rawk, trying not to let the magician get the better of him.
‘What makes you think that?’ oozed the mage, his words seeping from him like marsh gas from a stinking bog. He was standing really close now. Close enough to take down with a knife to the gut. If he had a knife. Rawk didn’t think he did. Had nothing really. Never really managed to hold on to anything for long.
‘Thinking of stabbing Quen Quen in the belly, eh?’
Rawk shook his head and stood his ground. He could smell Quen Quen’s spicy scent, even over his own demonic stench. The mage smelled of undeserved money and pretentious refinement. ‘Bet you don’t even have a knife?’
‘I don’t have a knife. And I’m not about to go stabbing no-one,’ said Rawk. ‘Do you have a reason for accosting me during bath time, or can I be on my way?’
‘Your way? I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I was stopping you getting somewhere important?’
Rawk hawked and spat. ‘Enough of this,’ he growled. ‘Job or fuck off?’
He wasn’t sure which way up he was in hell. If, indeed, Hell had a way up. True north. This way up and out of the underworld. It didn’t sound likely. He was still breathing and that was odd.
Rawk tried to wriggle a hand. His arm wouldn’t move but his fingers did. He could feel dirt and something else between his fingertips. Shit! It was really beginning to sting. Stripping the skin off his digits.
Quen Quen had not turned out to be all bad. Most of him was bad, but not quite all. After doing his very best to impress upon Rawk that he was a complete arse during their introduction, things had taken a surprising turn after that. It had been as if Quen Quen had wanted to make a bad first impression and then undo it the best he could.
They ate breakfast together on the steps of the city jail. Steaming hot bramble tea and savoury pastries procured from one of the many vendors that gathered around the legal quarter. Quen Quen naturally had paid and whilst doing so had made sure Rawk got a good eyeful of his beautiful gold-stuffed silk purse.
The square in front of the jail was packed with legal wannabes, rushing about, arms stuffed with yellow and grey papers.
So Hell, as it turned out was simply all about being buried in a pile of rotting corpses. Not very inventive, but then again, the situation was hellish enough, he conceded. Most would not be able to endure such a torture. Revulsion. Claustrophobia. Fear. Panic. Suffocation.
For Rawk it wasn’t so bad. He ventured to think it wasn’t the worst place he had ended up stuck. There was this one time he had decided to poke around in an old sewer under the western cemetery. Rumour had been of a secret society of thieves who made the old tunnels their home. Rumour turned out to be a crock. The sewers were flooded, and worse than that, most of the inhabitants of the cemetery above had found their way down into the mire. He had taken months to shake off the sickness.
He groped around in the dark with his burning hand. He could feel something. Cloth. And something hard in the cloth. It was either his pocket or the nearest corpse’s. It was hard to tell, being crushed in such a rancid pile.
After they had eaten, Quen Quen had taken Rawk out to the back of the jail. Taking a red and white striped silk handkerchief from the sleeve of his ornate purple and white patterned robes he covered his mouth and nose. ‘You have a kerchief or something?’ he asked Rawk.
‘Don’t need nothing,’ Rawk had said. It was true. Discarded shit, dead shit and literal shit really didn’t bother him any more.
The back of the jail resembled the clagnut-encrusted rear-end of an animal. And not a nice animal. A filthy one. It was where all the prison waste ended up. Food scraps too disgusting to even be fed as slop to the prisoners. Broken things, pots, crockery, a guard’s cosh that had battered its last skull. Broken furniture and even an overflowing and cracked chamber pot. But even worse, lay the bodies of broken people, waiting for the body collectors to come and take them down the hill to the pits.
‘What are we doing back here?’ asked Rawk. The job, if there even was a job was not looking promising.
‘Nothing really, just passing through,’ replied Quen Quen. ‘Come follow me. Delightful as this part of the city is, we must amble.’
Their morning’s so-called amble did not get better. They left the mess behind the jail, passed through the abattoirs and slum dwellings, down to the bad part of the city river and over the crooked bridge that looked at any moment likely to collapse and dump you in the sludge that had accumulated at the bottom.
‘The pits? We’re going to the pits?’ sighed Rawk, shaking his head.
‘Aye, but not just the regular pits,’ replied Quen Quen with a nod and a gleam in his eye. Rawk stared at Quen Quen. Quen Quen stared back, allowing a psychopathic smile to grace his pointy visage.
‘O shit no! The plague pits? No. What the hells?’ Rawk turned and began to leave.
‘There is a good deal for you, if you get done what I need to get done. You saw my silk purse, I know you did. How would you like that, eh? I think you would.’
Thank the gods he had walked away not even considered getting involved with the job that Quen Quen had wanted him to do. Whatever it was, if it involved poking around in the plague pits there was no amount of gold that could make that worth the risk.
But this place was a bad place. And he was in this bad place. Dying had really put a dampener on his day. He wasn’t really sure what had killed him. That was probably something to do with dying and going to the underworld. Maybe it affected one’s short-term memory. He couldn’t really give a shiny one though. Rawk was no philosopher. All he could think was maybe after he had left that sorcerous idiot on the edge of the pits fate had turned on him and he had slipped off that treacherous bridge and drowned in the river.
He returned his attention to the hard object he had at his fingertips. Whatever the object was, he now had hold of it. It was in a pocket, but definitely not his pocket. If he could just turn his wrist maybe he could work his fingers into cloth. It felt expensive. That was a good thing, although how much use treasure would be to him now he was dead…
That chemical stuff was burning a lot more now. And not just his hand. His eyes were stinging and his back felt like it was on fire. And he was definitely running out of air.
Have you got it?
His lungs were burning too. He was breathing the chemical in. It was a powder. A caustic powder. He could barely smell the other corpses. How the hell could he be dying in hell?
Grab it! It’s right at your fingertips. Rip the cloth away! Do it now!
Was he hearing voices? This was turning out to be a weird day. Dying twice in one day just about would top off his shitty life. Pain and panic was setting in. He began to kick. Fighting suddenly for his second life. Rhythmically clawing at the object in the pocket. Pulling. Tearing. Ripping. Agony. Sweet relief. Nothingness.
He came around slowly. That smell. Spice. Soft silk caressing his face. Softness and warmth like his mother’s skin. He was a newborn babe. He was safe and warm and happy. He opened his eyes and saw the mage and the illusion was shattered. ‘You!’ he choked. ‘I told you, I’m not going near those plague pits whatever you sick bastard-’
‘I’ll take that,’ replied Quen Quen prising the retrieved treasure out of Rawk’s red raw hand. ‘You have been most helpful. Cost me a couple of teleport spells, one to get you down to the bottom of the pit and one to pull you out again, but no big deal. You brought me what I needed and you didn’t even need to dig. Thank you. I mean that.’
And then he was alone. The midday sun was merely an irritating light shining in his face. He was mostly blind now and from the feel of it, red raw like a someone who had been burned in a quicklime-filled plague pit.
He looked down. The purple flower was still on his chest. He grasped it, but it was covered in the same caustic powder. It was wilted. Brittle. It crumpled into ashes. He felt sadness. That had been a gift. Now it was nothing more than a burnt gift. A burnt offering. Just like Rawk.
Something silky and soft was resting on his cheek. It was the only part of him that didn’t hurt. He reached up, everything else in agony and pulled the object down to his side. He could barely see it, but he could make a guess what it was. A silk purse. That spicy bastard’s silk purse. The one he had offered him. Empty of course. He tossed it aside and sucked in some air. The suck didn’t work and he sucked again. Everything was spinning. He wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to die for real now. His lungs felt like they were full of holes. His eyes failed. His last attempt to get air failed. His lungs collapsed. He figured he probably was about to shuffle off.
‘Well that turned out as shit as-’ he groaned.
And then Rawk groaned no more.
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